Stanley Cup Finals 2012: 4 Keys for the New Jersey Devils to Conquer LA's Kings
No, just kidding. Very few people expected that at all this season, and even fewer at the beginning of the playoffs, when the two teams were seeded sixth and eighth in their respective conferences. Now, whoever wins will become the highest-seeded Cup champion ever.
Each team has put together a magnificent run so far: the Kings have glided through to the Finals, dispatching the West's top-three seeds in order. They have yet to lose any of the first three games of a series, and even swept the league's best defensive team in St. Louis.
Meanwhile, after stumbling through a seven-game, first-round bout with the Panthers, the Devils have put up impressive performances against their two biggest rivals, the Flyers and Rangers. Though not playing nearly as dominantly as the Kings, they were able to win four-straight after losing Game 1 to the Flyers, and won three-straight against the East's best Rangers.
Both teams have looked scary-good at times (especially the Kings), but neither team has looked infallible (except maybe the Kings).
When the two teams meet, it's hard to say who will come out victorious. It's probably safe to say there will be a lot of fast-paced, hard-nosed hockey, but who hoists the Cup?
Here are four things the Devils must do to take momentum in their favor.
Trust in Depth
The Devils' biggest strength of this postseason has been their depth. I recently wrote about the fourth line, who have combined for nine goals and 19 points so far, but that's just part of it.
Seven different forwards have scored game-winning goals for the Devils, and all four lines are well-represented: David Clarkson has three, Ryan Carter, Adam Henrique and Travis Zajac each have two, and Zach Parise, Dainius Zubrus and Alexei Ponikarovsky each have one.
Coach Pete DeBoer knows he's got four good lines out there, and he just needs to remember that. The Kings are an extremely dangerous team: they're quick, physical, extremely talented and deceptively deep. There's going to be times where it's tempting for DeBoer to put out Kovy and Parise every play he can, but he needs to remember what got him there.
The stars should, of course, get more playing time. But Ryan Carter has saved them twice before, who's to say he won't come up big late in a close Game 3? Every forward on this roster has earned the right to play at big moments in a game.
Control Special Teams
During the regular season, the Devils' PK was historically good, but their playoff penalty kill has been somewhat horrific—they are currently at a 74.2 percent success rate (compared to 89.6 during the regular season).
However, as bad as the Devils' PK has been, the Kings' power play has been worse, operating at an 8.1 percent scoring rate.
If both of these teams keep playing at that level, that means that there's still 17.7 percent of Kings' power plays that are up for grabs, and that's an area where the Devils need to pounce.
The Kings will cause enough trouble for the Devils without strengthening their weakest area, and besides, shoring up the PK for the Devils might even mean squeezing out a few shorthanded goals—remember, they did lead the league in the regular season.
Keeping the Kings' man-advantage a failure is a must.
Meanwhile, both teams have a good special teams unit as well. The Devils' power-play works 18.2 percent of the time, fourth among playoff teams behind Florida, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The Kings' PK success rate is also superb at 91.2 percent.
This is an area where both teams can't continue at that level because there's a 10.4 percent overlap. And again, the Devils will need to take the middle ground here. With Jonathan Quick in net, the Devils can't afford to squander any advantages they're given, and that means they'll need to keep performing man-up and just overpower the Kings' PK.
That's easier said than done, but the Devils PP can be great. In the above video, all five players touch the puck in a manner of seconds, and Kovalchuk is able to pretty easily net a puck. If they keep playing they did in that video, they strongly improve their chances.
There's two terrifying aspects of the Kings team: their potent attack and Jonathan Quick.
I don't know what to do about Quick, no more than any of the players that have faced him. He's playing unbelievably well, and no one can say when his hot streak will cool down a bit. If his GAA is an indicator, the Devils can expect one to two goals per game. Odds are, he'll shut them out. Maybe they'll put up three against him once or twice too.
Anyway, knowing how little space they have to work with, the Devils' defense will have to be superb. There are many threats on the roster, but the main offenders are Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams, Dustin Penner, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. Those six forwards, along with Drew Doughty, lead the Kings' attack.
The Kings and Devils rarely meet in the regular season, so some of the players have very little experience facing the Devils and Brodeur. Others, like Carter and Richards, were hated foes for many years. Below are their career, regular-season numbers against the Devils.
|Dustin Brown||Anze Kopitar||Mike Richards||Jeff Carter||Justin Williams||Dustin Penner||Simon Gagne|
Simon Gagne was included because of his long career against the Devils. He is the team's most experienced against Brodeur and Co.
Career numbers are far from the best indicator, but there are certainly some things that can't be ignored. Mike Richards' plus/minus, for instance. Richards was the best two-way forward on a talented Flyers roster for years, and boasts a career plus 42. Despite that, he is minus 13 against the Devils.
In limited experiences, Penner, Brown and Kopitar have done very little. That could be taken as the Devils knowing how to handle the Kings, or as the Kings just not playing at their best against the Devils. I'm inclined to believe the latter.
Simon Gagne has the potential to be a wild factor. He's never struggled to find success against the Devils, and he's got 59 points in 105 playoff games to boot—including seven game-winners. He hasn't played since late 2011 when he sustained his third concussion, but he has been cleared to play and is an option should coach Darryl Sutter choose to dress him.
In any case and with every player, they need to be slowed. The Devils' defense has looked good as a whole, and Salvador, Anton Volchenkov, Andy Greene, Mark Fayne and Marek Zidlicky have all helped a great deal.
Admittedly though, some d-men, Volchenkov and Zidlicky to name a couple, could be playing better, and will need to in the coming series. Andy Greene, as well, could be contributing a good deal more on offense.
And then there's Marty. Brodeur's been great so far, and he needs to keep on shining. He will likely have to steal at least one game for the Devils, something he's proven himself capable of even at his advanced age of 40.
It's hard to bet against Quick this year, and he's shown no reason to think he'll be anything less than stellar. Still though, with Marty playing as well as he is, you have to respect that he's already accomplished it all three times; he knows how it's done. It remains to be seen if Quick has it in him to play like a stud on the biggest stage.
Shut Down Doughty
Drew Doughty was not included in the prior table because of his limited experience—he has but four games against the Devils, and one point in them. However, he, much like the current Kings team, is much better than any earlier version the Devils have played against.
Doughty is tied for fifth on the Kings with 10 points. The rest of the team's defensemen combined have 11 points. He leads his team's defense in goals, plus/minus (plus 10), penalty minutes (12) and time on ice per game (25:52). In short, he kinda does it all.
And therein lies the problem. He's by far the team's most skilled defender. He plays more than five power-play minutes and nearly two-and-a-half minutes shorthanded each game, and he hits enthusiastically and often.
He's a high-energy player, but if the Devils can avoid getting agitated by him and can keep him contained offensively, it could severely cripple the Kings' break-out attack.